ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
When Conan O\’Brien left \”The Tonight Show,\” he was contractually banned from television. Well, that ban ended this weekend with an interview on CBS\’ \”60 Minutes. \” In it, O\’Brien talked about his forced departure from NBC. (Soundbite of TV show, \”60 Minutes\”) Mr. CONAN O\’BRIEN (Former Host, \”The Tonight Show\”): If I had surrendered \”The Tonight Show\” and handed it over to somebody publicly and wished them well, I would not have come back six months later. But that\’s me. Everyone\’s got their own way of doing things. SIEGEL: As NPR entertainment blogger Linda Holmes explains, O\’Brien is sticking to a strategy that\’s working. LINDA HOLMES: Conan O\’Brien\’s contractual veil of silence was lifted Saturday. And his Sunday night appearance on \”60 Minutes\” continued one of television\’s most remarkable lemons-to-lemonade stories. For a guy who lost \”The Tonight Show\” seven months after he got it, O\’Brien has done just fine. He got a lot of money from NBC when he left. He got boatloads of public sympathy. He\’s touring live and being greeted like Captain Sully landing on the Hudson. And in the fall, he\’ll be a highly paid host again on TBS. The obvious question: How do you leave with a payout worth tens of millions of dollars, land a new show right away and still be an underdog folk hero to many of your fans? For one thing, O\’Brien gets sympathy by not asking for it. He insisted Sunday that he wasn\’t mistreated, as fans often tell him he was. I\’m fine, he told Steve Kroft, it just didn\’t work out. For another, he balances rejecting victimhood with admitting that it hurts to lose your dream job, no matter how much money you take with you. Million-dollar payouts may not be very relatable to fans, but a toxic work environment – just what he called it – where you feel unwelcome, that can happen to anybody. O\’Brien\’s smartest choice, though, is holding back – but just barely – about Jay Leno. He declined to answer a question about whether Leno had behaved honorably.
But he did say that taking back the show so soon wasn\’t what he would have done. And he laughed out loud when reminded that Leno sees himself and O\’Brien as similarly situated victims of network misdeeds. Pointing out that Leno has the show they both wanted while he has his unemployment beard and a life on the road, O\’Brien managed to sound self-deprecating while eviscerating Leno\’s argument. Whether he means to or not, the guy has played the public relations game magnificently from the beginning, right from the moment he addressed his statement giving up \”The Tonight Show\” to people of Earth. He\’s been funny but he\’s also sad. And when he temporarily lost television as an outlet, he packed his guitar and hit the road. On his very last \”Tonight Show,\” O\’Brien begged his fans not to become cynical. He told them: Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get, but if you work really hard and you\’re kind, amazing things will happen. Since then, he\’s explored Twitter, met his public in person and defied expectations by jumping to cable. He sings about being fired, he grows out that beard, and he insists that he\’s all right. It just didn\’t work out. It would be cynical to see his rejection of cynicism and self-pity as a public relations gambit, but if they were one, he could hardly have hoped it would go any better. SIEGEL: Linda Holmes is NPR\’s Pop Culture blogger. You can watch Conan O\’Brien\’s entire \”60 Minutes\” interview at NPR\’s arts and entertainment blog Monkey See at npr. org. Copyright 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website and pages at for further information. NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by, an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR s programming is the audio record. Very few things in this country galvanize public opinion like someone trying to mess around with people\’s preferences in the bedroom.
We\’re talking, of course, about what they watch on late night television. And NBC found that out a few months ago when Conan O\’Brien, the newly installed host of \”The Tonight Show,\” quit after the network announced it was going to push \”The Tonight Show\” into tomorrow, and to give its traditional time slot back to O\’Brien\’s predecessor Jay Leno. It triggered a lot of bad publicity for NBC, an outpouring of public support for O\’Brien, and some of the best late night jokes in a decade. O\’Brien walked away with a $32 million settlement and a new cable show, and NBC did its best to push him into oblivion, legally prohibiting him from saying anything false or disparaging about the network, and from giving interviews or appearing on television – until now. If you\’re wondering what happened to Conan O\’Brien and what he thinks about all of this, you are about to find out. \”So what\’s with the beard? \” correspondent Steve Kroft asked O\’Brien. \”That first day that I woke up and was no longer the host of \’The Tonight Show,\’ I remember the first thought I had is \’I am not shaving. \’ And that was my small victory, you know. \’Ok, so I lost the Tonight Show but I\’ll show them, I\’ll stop shaving,\’\” he replied. \”This has been quite a year,\” Kroft remarked. \”Yeah. That\’s it. We\’re done. This was a lot of fun. This year has been, is still incomprehensible to me. The amount of stuff that\’s happened in my life in the last year is it\’s gonna take me a long time to process it,\” O\’Brien said. After leaving \’The Tonight Show\’ in January and hanging out at his home trying to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life, he decided the best therapy would be to get out of the house and back to work. He assembled a lot of his old staff, opened a Twitter account, and began planning a nationwide comedy tour – something that he had never done before, and one of the few things he was allowed to do contractually.
Kroft met up with him in Seattle. \”You must have been miserable for the last couple of months,\” Kroft remarked. \”I went through some stuff. And I got very depressed at times. It was like a marriage breaking up suddenly, violently, quickly. And I was just trying to figure out what happened. When we started putting this tour together, I started to feel better almost immediately. And then there is almost no better antidote to what I\’ve just been through than to do this every night,\” O\’Brien said. \”Doing this tour though, this is a huge milestone for me. This is the first time anyone has paid to see me oh they\’ve paid to make me go away,\” O\’Brien joked. The \”Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour\” has boosted his confidence, kept him relevant and provided an outlet for him to explore his anger, disappointment, and anxiety with mostly self-deprecating humor. \”My own show again! I just can\’t wait to have my own show again. I\’d even take a primetime show that\’s on at 10; anything to have my own show again,\” he joked. After 40 performances in 32 cities in the U. S. and Canada, the tour will wind up next month at Radio City Music Hall in New York, right next door to NBC\’s corporate headquarters where this whole late night fiasco was cooked up. Less than one year after Leno handed \”The Tonight Show\” off to O\’Brien, NBC decided to cancel Leno\’s disastrous prime show and move him back into his old time period at 11:35 p. m. Eastern. Conan\’s \”Tonight Show,\” which was losing badly in the ratings to David Letterman, was to be bumped back to 12:05 a. m. the next morning. \”Was in the back of your mind that \’Look, if I don\’t do that well, they can just pop Leno back in\’? \” Kroft asked. \”I\’m a paranoid person. And I think I\’m the kind of person that can come up with lots of negative scenarios. But I remembered thinking that seemed like that was a stretch even for me,\” O\’Brien said.